Olga Rozanova - Biography and Legacy
Russian Painter, Poet, and Designer
Biography of Olga Rozanova
Olga Rozanova was born in the small town of Melenki in Russia, near the city of Vladimir, about 200 kilometers east of Moscow. Her father, Vladimir Iakovlevich Rozanov, was a district police officer, while her mother, Elizaveta Vasilevna Rozanova, was the daughter of an Orthodox priest, educated to a high level for a woman of her generation. Olga was the couple's fifth child, though only three of her siblings survived infancy. In 1903, Rozanova's father died, leaving Olga's mother as the head of the household. From 1896 to 1904 Rozanova studied at the Vladimir Women's Gymnasium, before leaving her home-town to train as a painter in Moscow, where her brother was already based as a law student.
Early Training and Work
Little is known for certain about Rozanova's early artistic education, but she definitely trained in private art schools in St. Petersburg and Moscow, working in the latter city under the tutelage of the Realist painter Nikolai Ulyanov, and with the Impressionist landscape painter Konstantin Yuon. The critic Nina Gurianova notes that Rozanova's early works are primarily distinguished by the artist's "unusual approach to the model," whereby Rozanova brings "into each drawing an individual, personal element of portraiture", indicating "on every page not only the exact date, but also the name of the model, often in a friendly, diminutive nickname...". By these and other means, Gurianova suggests, Rozanova aimed to capture in paint both the physical qualities and "overall inner essence" of her subjects. Many of her early works also depict the natural world, and as a whole her youthful painting style is characterized by crowded composition, and by a thick impasto technique lending a distinct sense of physicality.
Between 1907 and 1910, Rozanova embarked on what Gurianova calls her "first Moscow" period. During this time the artist worked on landscape, portrait, and still-life paintings with an attentiveness to color and decorative effect indebted - like much Russian avant-garde at this point - to Impressionist and Post-Impressionist techniques, in particular the work of Paul Cézanne. While in Moscow she was also exposed to the more general influx of French avant-garde art showcased at exhibitions such as the first Golden Fleece Salon of 1908, which included work by Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Paul Gauguin, Jean Metzinger, and Georges Rouault. Rozanova was also able to view the famous collector Sergei Shchukin's holdings of Western European art, and was influenced by the work of her Russian compatriots Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, whose work would later be associated with so-called Neo-Primitivism. Uniquely for a Russian artist of her generation, Rozanova's artistic journey never took her beyond the borders of her home-country.
Rozanova was a member or fellow-traveler of various of the fugitive avant-garde movements and groups springing into existence in the heady atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary Russia, including the Union of Youth, Jack of Diamonds, and the Left Federation of the Professional Union of Artist-Painters. According to Gurianova, the years from 1911 to 1914 were "the four most intense and fruitful years in Rozanova's life."
In 1913, Rozanova was elected to the executive board of the Union of Youth - which by this point had expanded to incorporate various artistic and literary collectives - and composed the group's manifesto, "The Foundations of the New Art and Why It is Not Understood". Published in March of that year, this statement defines aesthetic beauty as a life-giving, ethical force, proclaiming freedom from creative convention as the only means of capturing and engaging with that force. Rozanova's was the first in a series of legendary Russian artistic manifestos written in 1913, including Mikhail Larionov's "Rayism", Aleksandr Shevchenko's "The Manifesto of the Rayists and Futurists", and the sound-poetry manifesto "Declaration of the Word as Such", co-authored by Rozanova's future-husband Alexei Kruchenykh. The ideas in Rozanova's manifesto were based partly on her study of a Russian translation of Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger's 1912 text Du Cubisme, as well as the 1910 "Manifesto of Futurist Painters" by the Italian artists Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla, and Gino Severini. Rozanova was also a talented poet, creating abstract and phonetic verse similar to the "Zaum" poetry being produced by Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov at this time.
The aesthetic of Rozanova's middle period is a striking example of what is now known as Cubo-Futurism, a term for various painting styles developed in Russia during the early 1910s which combined the ideas and techniques of French Cubism with a range of native influences and, at a later point and to a lesser extent, the influence of Italian Futurism. Cubo-Futurism is often referred to as one of the staging posts on Kazimir Malevich's journey towards the Suprematist style achieved with his Black Square of 1915 (itself based on a 1913 curtain design for the Cubo-Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun). But if works like Malevich's The Knife-Grinder (1913) wear the influence of Cubism on their sleeve, Rozanova's Cubo-Futurist aesthetic was unusual in its relative lack of reliance on French models, and for its unique affinity with contemporary Italian painting. Reflecting during 1916-17 on her formative engagement with Italian Futurism, Rozanova declared that the style had enabled the "fusion of two worlds - the subjective and the objective." Italian Futurism, she went on, "expressed the character of our contemporaneity", and represented an "event [...] destined never to be repeated." Her affection for the style was reciprocated: Rozanova's work was shown abroad for the first time in an exhibition of international Futurist art held at the Sprovieri Gallery in Rome in 1914. At the same time, while her work shows a clear engagement with the Futurist idea of depicting dynamic movement, it seems more concerned with evoking what Gurianova calls "inner, spiritual, movement" than with the speeding automobiles and airplanes which fascinated Umberto Boccioni et al.
Following the dissolution of the Union of Youth at the outbreak of war in 1914, Rozanova, like many Russian Cubo-Futurist artists, began to experiment with purer, less figurative forms of abstraction. She turned to intensive studies of color, shape, and texture, and explored Wassily Kandinsky's theories on the spiritual and emotive content of abstract art. Color increasingly became the artist's primary concern, and her later works - like those of the German Expressionist movement - relied on dramatic tonal contrasts to convey emotional mood.
Rozanova exhibited at the so-called Last Futurist Exhibition 0,10, held in St. Petersburg in 1915, where Kazimir Malevich's Black Square made its debut, alongside early examples of Vladimir Tatlin's Constructivist sculpture. Writing to Kruchenykh after the exhibition, Rozanova declared that her collages had been the uncredited inspiration for Malevich's Suprematist style, which she described as "entirely [based on] my paste-ons: a combination of planes, lines, discs (especially discs) and no incorporation whatsoever of real objects. And after all that these scum hide my name." Despite the tone of this letter, Malevich and Rozanova were said to have enjoyed a close and productive professional relationship, Rozanova acting as Malevich's secretory while he worked on his unrealized magazine-project Supremus.
Malevich and Rozanova were often seen as working along the same stylistic path, but Rozanova's interest in color set the Suprematist work of her later years apart from Malevich's. During 1916-17, she worked on a theory called "tsvetopis", involving what she called a "transfigured" color scheme. This represented Rozanova's most concerted attempt to distance her aesthetics from Malevich's and to establish her own place in relation to the Suprematist aesthetic of the time. Roughly meaning "color painting," the idea of "tsvetopis" reflected Rozanova's belief in the primacy of color and color effects in the composition and activation of the painting surface. The catalogue for a 1992 retrospective of Rozanova's work describes her as having imbued Malevich's "decorative and spatial possibilities of abstraction" with a unique "feeling of color"; the Constructivist designer Varvara Stepanova, in a 1918 diary entry, claimed that Rozanova's work presented "her own, reworked movements of the soul and feeling", using "paint and color that was not mystical like that of Malevich." Indeed, it is worth noting that Rozanova, who also worked in embroidery, textiles, and graphic design, seems to have been a talismanic figure for a younger generation of Russian women artists such as Stepanova, whom Gurianov describes as having been "sincerely and deeply interested in Rozanova's work."
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Rozanova became involved in political activism, and in 1918 helped to establish the Moscow branch of the Free State Art Studios (SVOMAS), Bolshevik art schools intended to extend artistic education and training to the worker and peasant classes, which Rozanova saw as reviving the role of the traditional Russian craft workshop. She was also at the center of debates between Suprematists and Constructivists in post-Revolutionary Russia as to which style should define the new artistic culture of the USSR. During preparations for one of the first post-Revolutionary exhibitions of Russian art, both camps tried to claim her as their own.
In the midst of all this activity, on November 8, 1918, Olga Rozanova died at the age of 32 from diphtheria, contracted while she was working on converting Tushino Airport into a domestic architectural space, a project intended to mark the first anniversary of the October Revolution.
The Legacy of Olga Rozanova
Art historian Nina Gurianova describes Olga Rozanova's art as "so whole and unique" that it "defies all attempts to enclose it within the bounds of any single tendency or group." Traversing various of the styles and aesthetic groupings which went into making up early-twentieth-century Russian avant-garde aesthetics, her brief career and its untimely end, Gurianova suggests, represent "the fate of the early Russian avant-garde [...] in miniature." The critic Charlotte Douglas notes that Rozanova's oeuvre was exemplary of its epoch in extending into applied and decorative arts; she received particular acclaim for her designs for books by poets such as Velimir Khlebnikov and Alexei Kruchenykh.
But although Rozanova was an important figure in the Russian avant-garde - one of the "Amazons" of early-twentieth-century Russian art, according to Cubo-Futurist poet Benedikt Livshits - her work has received little sustained critical attention except in Russian-language publications. This relative neglect stands in striking contrast to the reception of her work amongst her peers, such as Aleksander Rodchenko, who photographed the artist lying in her coffin in 1918. Other contemporaries described Rozanova's art as possessing a "gentle feminine elegance", and "full of diversity and promise", while a posthumous 1919 exhibition was visited by 7,000 people, with the Constructivist fashion designer Varvara Stepanova, the Suprematist painter Ivan Kliun, and the art historian Abram Efros either contributing catalogue essays or writing favorable reviews. Efros's article, published in 1919 and republished in 1930, remained the definitive scholarly text on Rozanova until the 1970s, in part reflecting the stultifying grip of Socialist Realism over Russian art across the middle decades of the 20th century. Even the writing on Rozanova that began to appear after that point was often riddled with factual errors and inconsistencies, but a more recent generation of critics such as Gurianova has helped to bring Rozanova's life and work back from obscurity - to some extent.